June 29, 1998 12:00 PM

When Jim Carrey stepped from his limousine for the Hollywood premiere of The Truman Show on June 1, he seemed a changed man: more James than Jim, more gallant than galoot. Then suddenly, he turned his back on his fans and bent over—but not to moon them. Rather, he helped ex-wife Lauren Holly, 34, whom he began seeing again recently, from the car to share his spotlight. Running a gauntlet of screaming fans, shouted questions and flashing cameras, Carrey, 36, made not a single fun-house face. He was every inch the confident, happy leading man.

And why shouldn’t he be? He has been given a second chance with the woman he loves, and both critics and audiences love him in The Truman Show, a cautionary tale of unchecked voyeurism that earned $31.5 million in its first weekend. Even better, the film is attracting actual grownups—not just millions of teenage boys who worship him for his acrobatic renditions of bodily functions—fulfilling Carrey’s longing to exercise his serious side.

Of course, Carrey has learned to be wary of wishes-come-true; he relates to Truman Burbank, who discovers at age 30 that he has been the unwitting star of a 24-hour-a-day TV show all his life. ” ‘My life is not much different than Truman’s,’ ” Peter “Weir, the film’s director, recalls Carrey telling him at their first meeting, in 1995. ” ‘I’m kind of a prisoner.’ ”

Three years later, Carrey, an avid reader of self-help books, sounds more sanguine about his renown. “At certain times,” he says, “it can be kind of confronting and a little unfair. But for the most part, it’s just natural, I grew up being the center of attention, and I grew into that as an adult.” His challenge, Weir adds, is “to learn how to live with fame.”

For the moment, that means renting the singer Sting’s six-bedroom Malibu beach house, which Carrey shares with Holly (they each own a home in Los Angeles). “I don’t have a tremendously exciting life,” he insists. “I just hang with friends, I read, I do whatever”—including tooling around L.A. on a new Harley-Davidson, his visored helmet providing blessed anonymity. “It gives him something he can do in public and not be recognized,” says Noah Emmerich, who plays Carrey’s best friend in The Truman Show. Biker fantasies aside, the slow lane may be the best place for Carrey and Holly to solidify their reconciliation. “You have two people working incredibly long hours in different places,” notes Steve Oedekerk, a friend and cowriter of the first Ace Ventura movie. “So the question becomes, can you make an un-normal situation work well?”

That remains to be seen. Carrey recently told Movieline that marriage “is one thing that I want to master at some point, but I have not been good at it.” His first attempt, with actress Melissa Womer in 1987, lasted seven years and produced a daughter, Jane, now 10, who lives with her mother (Carrey sees her weekly). Holly’s first marriage, to Anthony Quinn’s actor son Danny, in 1991, lasted 2½ years. Carrey and Holly, who was in the TV show Picket Fences for its entire four seasons, fell in love in 1994 on the set of Dumb and Dumber. Despite a series of breakups and makeups, they seemed intent on sticking it out. When he was shooting Liar, Liar in Los Angeles in July 1996, Carrey often visited the San Francisco set of Holly’s A Smile Like Yours. “He would sit at the monitor and watch her with such sweetness and love,” recalls producer David Kirkpatrick. After the couple wed on a hillside north of Malibu that September, they invited 10 friends on a whirlwind honeymoon to New York City and London. “He wanted to enjoy it with his friends,” says actor Cary Elwes, who went along on the jaunt.

That winter, the newlyweds seemed blissful during the filming of The Truman Show in exclusive Seaside, Fla. They rented a secluded $6.5 million, 12,000-square-foot oceanfront mansion several miles out of town. There, says Steve Alford, co-owner of the home, Carrey practiced his lines riding a motorized skateboard around the 5,000-square-foot garage. On the set, Holly appeared the adoring wife as she watched her man create his breakout role. But her career soon called her to Long Island, N.Y., for the filming of No Looking Back with director Ed Burns. Producer Michael Nozik says, “There was no sense of something volcanic happening, like a divorce.”

But two months later, on July 29, 1997, Holly, who was seen often in public with Burns, did file for divorce. Eleven months later, neither Carrey nor Holly is talking about their renewed relationship. Asked by reporters at The Truman Show premiere about a remarriage, the two responded in robot-voiced unison, “Access denied!”

The couple grew up on opposite sides of Lake Ontario—he in Toronto, she in upstate Geneva, N.Y.—as well as on opposite sides of the track. Holly is the only daughter of college professors Grant and Michael. (Her brother Nick is 27; her other brother Alexander died in a fire when he was 14.) Holly was studious, athletic, dramatic (once floating on a lake wearing fuchsia baby-doll pajamas in an inner-tube) and inevitably dated the most popular guy. “I’ve never seen anyone who had such a knack for being in the right place at the right time,” says friend Kristine Martin, who once helped get Holly a summer job in a canning plant, where they flung beans at one another and dated their supervisors. Holly went on to Sarah Lawrence College (graduating in 1985), where her roommate was Robin Givens.

Carrey, a high school dropout, also worked in a factory—but out of necessity, sweeping the floors at night alongside his parents and two of his three older siblings. His late father, Percy, a sweet but often despondent former musician, yearned for his son to have the success that had eluded him. Carrey’s late mother, Kathleen, was bedridden with kidney problems, and his unyielding attempts to make her laugh gave him plenty of material to perform his first routine at a small Toronto comedy club at age 17. (He bombed.) “He was brought up on his father’s fantasies of making it,” says Rob Salem, a TV columnist for The Toronto Star who got to know the young Carrey during the early years. “It’s a tangled little maze he has inside of himself.”

One that Holly seems to be helping Carrey navigate—although the two are as busy as ever. At the end of July, the comedian will begin shooting Man on the Moon (he’ll play the late comic Andy Kaufman). Holly is in New York City for her role in the movie Entropy. Carrey’s friend Elwes says his pal worried about what people would think of him for dating his ex. Elwes answered, “Who cares? Look at Burton and Taylor. Well, let’s hope it doesn’t go through that many divorces.”

Christina Cheakalos

Tim Roche in Seaside, Tom Cunneff, Julie Jordan, Ken Baker, Deanna Kizis and Elizabeth Leonard in Los Angeles, Natasha Stoynoff in Toronto, Michelle York and Jason Lynch in New York City

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